On Tuesday night, unstoppable K-poppers BTS continued to break barriers, when they became the first Korean act to star in their own standalone U.S. MTV Unplugged special — going down in televised pop history alongside the likes of Pearl Jam, LL Cool J, Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, Tony Bennett, Lauryn Hill, and of course, Nirvana.
Admittedly, the half-hour one-off special, filmed in South Korea, wasn’t all that unplugged, at least in the series’ traditional ’90s sense. It started off with the boy band crooning “Telepathy” in an old-school basement rec room, followed by “Blue & Grey” in a sunlit greenhouse, both performances accompanied by lushly orchestrated tracks; later on, a couple cords could definitely be spotted trailing from their backing band’s apparently electric instruments. But MTV Unplugged Presents: BTS nonetheless presented BTS in a new light, stripping back their usual glossy production and super-stylized choreographed, and putting the focus on the soulful Seoul group’s smooth septuple harmonies.
The special also emphasized BTS’s unknown-to-the-uninitiated songwriting skills, as the show took a page from another famous Viacom franchise, VH1 Storytellers, with two group members opening up about their specific contributions to the two above-mentioned hits. Suga — recently recovered from his November 2020 shoulder surgery and delighted to be performing again, even if it wasn’t in front of the group’s usual nightly live audience of thousands — spoke about his “Telepathy” inspiration, stating: “We’re in a situation where we can’t meet our fans around the world in person due to COVID-19, so the song’s lyrics describes our current situation of temporarily being apart from each other. … I had to work on our album BE, and while I was listening to some older demos I came across this and thought, ‘This could be good!’ I finished writing the lyrics on the spot, turned it in, and it made it to the album.” Later, group member V, a co-writer on “Blue & Grey,” also spoke about the past difficult and lonely year, explaining, “I tried to express my inner sadness and uncertainty, so I translated the feeling of burning out as ‘blue’ and the sadness of not being able to see ARMY as ‘grey.’”
Of course, while MTV Unplugged Presents: BTS might have converted some doubters into admirers and casual fans into superfans, the millions of ARMY members (a.k.a. diehard BTS devotees) who tuned in Tuesday from around the globe were already well aware that Suga, V, and their fellow BTS mates J-Hope, Jimin, Jin, Jungkook, and RM are accomplished vocalists and composers. That is why the entire MTV special was dedicated to the ARMY — with BTS repeatedly expressing their disappointment and frustration over not being able tour their recent BE album due to the coronavirus pandemic, mingled with their gratitude for the unprecedented Unplugged opportunity and hopes for a return to normalcy in 2021. (“This situation where we can’t see each other is very difficult for us, and makes us question what we are doing,” was one particularly somber confession.) So, that was why BTS planned an Unplugged surprise for their ARMY, debuting their angelic cover of Coldplay’s power ballad “Fix You,” a song that had personally comforted them throughout 2020.
It was only during BTS’s final two Unplugged numbers, the pandemic-inspired encouragement anthem “Life Goes On” and the undeniable bop of last summer, “Dynamite,” that the show settled into the more conventional Unplugged-style format established in the 1990s. As the group sat on stools, they were joined by a minimal backing ensemble — which, if not entirely acoustic, did lend both songs pleasantly jazzy, swingy arrangements. So, maybe this was more like MTV Jazzed, but it made the concept of BTS one day releasing an album of Great American Songbook standards seem like a fabulous and not unrealistic prospect.
Let’s just hope that if and when that happens, acoustic or not, BTS will be able to perform those jazz tunes live and in person for their devoted ARMY. Until then, this special will more than enough to tide fans over, as life goes on.
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